Striking back

The collapse in votes for mainstream parties, coupled with increasing outbreaks of strike action - official and unofficial - signifies growing political unrest in Britain. But how far will the rebellion spread? Peter Lazenby reports

August 22, 2009 · 12 min read

When 140 journalists at Leeds-based Yorkshire Post Newspapers (YPN) walked out on strike against compulsory redundancies in March, they had little idea of the wave of public support their action would prompt.

It was deafening. Pickets, up to 100 strong, outside the company’s headquarters on a main arterial road into and out of Leeds. ‘Honk your support’, some of their placards said – and so from morning till night the cacophony of honking horns was non-stop. It came from drivers of cars, taxis, buses, lorries with their booming fog-horn blasts, fire appliances, ambulances – even the occasional police car sounded its siren. Local office workers came out bearing gifts for pickets: a box of chocolates, a tin of biscuits, donations of money.

The journalists, at the Yorkshire Post, Yorkshire Evening Post and Leeds Weekly News, staged 13 days of sporadic strike action during March and April. Every day, the public expressions of support were the same.

One feature of the strike was the age of those involved. Around 40 per cent of the journalists are at the later end of their working lives, people in their fifties.

But the majority are mainly in their twenties and thirties, with some in their forties. Most of them had never been on strike before, yet they exhibited the enthusiasm and organisational skills of experienced activists. Many were taken aback by the level of public support.

The public and pickets

Richard Edwards, a 33-year-old reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, was a first-time striker. ‘I was overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘It was moving. We all felt we had right on our side and had to do it. Whether that was going to transmit itself to the public we did not know.

‘The horns started honking from the second we got out there and did not stop until the last day. It was really heartening. It wasn’t just the horns. It was the passers-by, people taking the leaflets and stopping to chat, people from other businesses bringing provisions to the picket line for us.

‘And people stopped buying the paper as well.’

The NUJ estimates that circulation of the biggest-selling paper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, fell by 18 per cent during the dispute, compared to the same period a year earlier. ‘It was as if the readership identified with the staff,’ says Edwards. ‘It also isolated management.’

Some strikers believe that the position the journalists were in was a microcosm of the problems being faced by the public at large.

YPN’s owners, Edinburgh-based Johnston Press, were in great part responsible for their own troubles. Year after year they handed out huge dividends and bonuses to shareholders and directors, while at the same time borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds to buy up other newspapers. When the recession hit, advertising revenues plummeted, and the company’s share value tumbled to £40 million, one-tenth of its debts of £400 million. The company told the workforce they would have to pay with their jobs, and the strike was the result.

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of people are being thrown out of work, and thousands are losing their homes, because of an economic crisis not of their making. According to Richard Edwards, ‘People were thinking, “go on, get stuck into the buggers who dragged us into this mess.”‘

Just as the YPN strikers identified management as being responsible for the problem, the public identifies the culprits behind the recession as the financiers and bankers – and the governments who failed to control them.

Since then there has been the scandal of MPs’ expenses. The public is also seeing the restoration of obscene bonuses to the very people responsible for their suffering.

So if the YPN strike was acting as a lightning conductor for public anger, is the anger a sign of a wider rebellion?

There have been the successful occupations staged by the Visteon workers (see Red Pepper, June/July). Refinery and power station construction workers have staged a series of wildcat unofficial strikes in defence of their jobs. And there are rumblings from the steel industry, where thousands more jobs are under threat.

But the situation today is unlike those faced in the financial crises of the 1970s, or the Thatcherite 1980s, when unemployment was deliberately forced up as a means of pushing down wages.

For a start, the trade union movement has changed. Today there are 6.5 million trade union members. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there were 13 million. Trade union membership and therefore strength has declined, and workplace organisation has decreased.

Anti-union laws

Unions are still hamstrung by anti-union laws, most of which, to its shame, the Labour government has refused to repeal. To be fair, one change by the 1997 Labour government was re-introduction of the right to union recognition when a majority of a workforce votes for it. However, Britain continues to have the strongest anti-union legislation of any country in the European Union.

Secondary action – action by one group of workers in support of another – is still illegal for unions but not for employers. This was a major factor in the Yorkshire Post Newspapers strike, during which the company employed the Press Association news agency to produce scab newspapers when the journalists were on strike. Any action by other workers in support of the journalists – the printers at Johnston Press’s plant at Dinnington in South Yorkshire, for example – would have been illegal and carried the threat of sequestration of union funds, and of legal action against any local union officials involved.

Yet the laws did not stop the Visteon occupations. When the car components firm, formerly owned by Ford, declared almost 600 redundancies and reneged on redundancy pay, the workers in Belfast and Enfield occupied their factories. As a result they won the severance terms that had been promised when their jobs were transferred from Ford.

Nor did the laws deter the oil refinery and power station construction workers, who used mass texting, among other methods, to win support at power stations and refineries across the country. The action was a protest against the exploitation of cheap, foreign labour to replace British workers that prompted use of the ominous phrase ‘British jobs for British workers’.

But any suggestion of racism was dispelled by the strikers and their unions. Attempts by the British National Party to cash in on the dispute were rebuffed.

Workers at Lindsey oil refinery in north Lincolnshire struck first. The action spread to refineries and power stations in Yorkshire, Cheshire and Wales. It brought a recalcitrant management to the negotiating table, and a settlement amounting to victory for the strikers.

But does the flexing of industrial muscle by power industry construction workers indicate anything more significant?

In the 1970s, power station shop stewards had their own combined committee, which operated outside the official union structure, across union lines, and indeed was feared by some at the top of the union hierarchies. The recent strikes involved sub-contracted construction workers, rather than power production workers. Nevertheless, the existence of a new, ‘unofficial’ network of union activists in the industry capable of organising effective, nationwide wildcat strike action is significant, and even more so if it shows the way ahead for other groups of workers.

The refinery and power station construction workers, like the power workers themselves, have a long history of trade union organisation. Most belong to either the GMB or Unite, with a small number of members of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt).

GMB national secretary Phil Davies told Red Pepper: ‘Trade union organisation is very much a tradition in this section of the construction industry. The action they took was self-organised. It has taken years to get their current pay and conditions. They felt their national agreement was under threat and for that to happen was a big thing and they organised themselves.’

No big battalions

But the big battalions of the industrial labour movement are no more. The National Union of Mineworkers, once hailed as the shock troops of the movement, has shrivelled from 200,000 members in the 1970s to fewer than 1,700 today, working at a mere handful of pits. The engineering industry still exists, but in a far smaller form than before. The same applies to once powerful groups of workers such as the dockers.

In the early 1980s, unemployed workers in many areas organised through their unions, such as the very active section of unemployed workers in the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Liverpool, led by jobless dockers. Unemployed workers’ centres – centres of organisation and agitation – opened in many towns and cities, often assisted by Labour-controlled local councils. Workers from Scotland, the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire and the Midlands organised jobless marches on London. This is not currently happening.

One problem is that as Britain’s traditional unionised manufacturing industries have shrunk, non-unionised service industries such as the financial sector have grown. My own city, Leeds, is an example of that development. Where once clothing factories, textile mills and engineering works were the main sources of employment, now call centres, banks, insurance and other financial institutions employ tens of thousands.

The treatment of unemployed people today would have been unthinkable in the days of the trade union movement of the 1970s.

Rob Wood, a 51-year-old joiner from Hebden Bridge, lost his job through long-term illness. On recovering recently he was sent by his local jobcentre to an employer where he was told he would have to work for a week without wages to ‘see how you get on’.

‘I went back to the jobcentre to complain and they said this was “quite acceptable” – those were the words they used,’ he said. ‘They said there had been over 100 applications. Imagine if he got a week’s work out of each of them. There’s something wrong here.’

One of my relatives, a young man in his twenties, worked for several months for no wages fitting satellite dishes and TV systems, on the promise that at the end of the training period he could walk into well-paid work. His ‘trainer’ pocketed thousands of pounds. Neither Rob nor my relative could see any way of fighting back, given rising unemployment and the diminished level of trade union organisation.

The fight next time

So where will the next fightback take place? The railway industry has the potential for effective action, and workers on London’s Underground, members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, recently struck. In Manchester, college teachers voted for strike action against compulsory redundancies. And more than 300 Unison members at London Metropolitan University voted for strike action over job cuts. There have been reactions to other injustices too.

The public has responded to the plight of destitute asylum seekers, motivated by both compassion and rebellion. In Leeds, one group collects food parcels and opened a kitchen in a church hall to provide meals. A system of free legal advice has been established, as well as a centre to provide refugees with access to training and jobs.

Home Office immigration centres are being targeted for regular demonstrations. The TUC recently launched a nationwide campaign to win back the right to work for asylum seekers.

There has also been sustained action by peace campaigners against the EDO-MBM arms manufacturer in Brighton. So other rebellions and actions are taking place.

The public sector might well be the next battleground. The billions of pounds borrowed to bail out the financial institutions will have to be found from somewhere. The government has already made it clear that public spending is the target.

At the annual conference of public service union Unison, general secretary Dave Prentis warned that the union might withdraw funding for Labour MPs who did not commit themselves to defending public services. He says: ‘Freezing public sector pay during the recession is not the way to steer people through it. Let’s be clear, the recession was caused by bankers and speculators, who took advantage of the lack of regulation to make a killing.

‘Yet low-paid public sector workers, who are helping communities deal with the fallout, are being asked to pay the price. At the same time city bonuses are making a comeback with figures that most people can’t even dream of earning in a whole lifetime.’

To return, finally, to the journalists’ strike in Leeds, as local union officials Peter Johnson and Richard Edwards put it: ‘It was a score draw.’ A handful of jobs were saved through redeployment and job-sharing, and the remaining redundancies were implemented. But the strike hurt the business badly. It also sent a message to the employers of how the workforce will respond if more job losses are sought.

Peter Lazenby is a journalist and NUJ activist, chair of the Leeds branch of the NUJ and father of chapel at the Yorkshire Evening Post. This is the first in a series of special reports and analyses of underlying trends in political and social activism of different kinds. We are grateful to the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust for financial support for this project.

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